Mississippi Center for Justice

Powerful writing on racism could inspire SCOTUS to hear Mississippi case

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This judge’s powerful writing on racism could inspire U.S. Supreme Court to hear Mississippi case

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic language. Also, you can read Judge James Graves’ complete dissent at the bottom of this story.

A dissent written by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James Graves Jr. could play a key role in determining whether the will hear an appeal of a case that has, so far, upheld Mississippi’s Jim Crow-era constitutional provision written to keep Black people from .

Last month, the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a Mississippi constitutional provision that bans people convicted of certain felonies from voting. White leaders in Mississippi included most of those specific felonies in the state’s 1890 Constitution because they thought those crimes were more likely to be committed by African Americans.

Though attorneys challenging the provision in court say it has continued to disenfranchise Black Mississippians, a majority of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree. Following the appeals court’s ruling, plaintiff attorneys said they plan to appeal the lower court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. They have 90 days from the final verdict that was issued on Aug. 24 the file the appeal.

Graves, a Black man from Mississippi who was appointed to the federal appeals court in 2010, wrote a 47-page dissent that outlines the state’s long and disturbing history of racism and its impact on America.

Rob McDuff, an attorney with the who is working on the case, said Graves’ dissent could increase the odds the Supreme Court will take up the case.

“A strong dissent like that of Justice Graves’ can highlight for the Supreme Court that this is an important case where the Court of Appeals is sharply divided,” said McDuff, who has argued four cases before the nation’s highest court. “This increases the chances the Supreme Court will take the case although it’s no guarantee.”

READ MORE: 5th Circuit upholds Jim Crow-era law written to keep Black Mississippians from voting

A majority of the 17 members of the Court of Appeals that heard the case acknowledged that the felony suffrage provision, like many in the 1890 Constitution, was intended to prevent African Americans, then a majority in the state, from voting. That reality would be difficult to deny.

“The plan is to invest permanently the powers of government in the hands of the people who ought to have them: the white people,” James Zachariah George, a U.S. senator who was one of the architects of the 1890 Constitution and to this day has a statue in the U.S. Capitol representing Mississippi, said at the time.

But the nine members of the court who made up the majority in the recent ruling said that when state lawmakers added murder and rape as disenfranchising crimes in 1968, “the racial taint” was removed because the original 1890 language crafted by George and others had been amended.

“The critical issue here is not the intent behind Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution, but whether the reenactment of Section 241 (the felony disenfranchisement language) in 1968 was free of intentional racial discrimination,” the nine-member majority wrote.

The majority concluded it was.

“Mississippi (represented by the office of Lynn Fitch) has conclusively shown that any taint associated with Section 241 has been cured,” the majority wrote last month in an unsigned opinion.

But in his blistering dissent, Graves methodically wrote that the racial taint had not at all been removed by state lawmakers in the 1960s.

He pointed out that the Legislature did not reenact Section 241 in 1968; it simply passed a provision to include murder and rape as disenfranchising crimes. Section 241 would have remained in effect regardless of whether the amendment adding murder and rape was approved by voters.

And perhaps more importantly, Graves pointed out many of the people in the Legislature and indeed the electorate as a whole at that time had been engaged in preventing Black Mississippians from voting and from integrating schools and society. Many of those same people had been engaged in violence against African Americans.

Graves cited Tom Brady, a member of the in 1968. Graves pointed out Brady wrote in a book that was available in many Mississippi schools: “You can dress a chimpanzee, housebreak him, and teach him to use a knife and fork, but it will take countless generations of evolutionary development, if ever, before you can convince him that a caterpillar or cockroach is not a delicacy. Likewise the social, economic and religious preferences of the Negro remain close to the caterpillar and the cockroach.”

Graves, in his dissent, also pointed out that in the mid 20the Century while Mississippi lawmakers were removing a racial taint from its state Constitution, according to the majority ruling, white South African leaders were traveling to Mississippi “to learn how best to keep their own Black population disempowered and impoverished in perpetuity,” and earlier Nazi leader Adolph Hitler proclaimed the goal of making a conquered region “our Mississippi.”

Graves cited a passage from a 1960s newspaper article detailing efforts during school desegregation when Mississippians were, according to the Court’s majority opinion, removing the racial taint from the felony suffrage provision of the 1890 Constitution.

“Some husky young men were whipping a little Negro girl with pigtails,” the reporter wrote. “She was running. The men chased after her, whooping and leaping up and down like animals.”

The dissent was filled with such reports of violence and of loss of life for African Americans.

Graves, a Clinton native, was one of the first African American circuit judges in the state – appointed to the post in 1991 by then-Gov. Ray Mabus. In 2001, he was appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. President Barack Obama appointed him to a slot on the federal Court of Appeals in 2010.

Graves, in his dissent, recalled his own upbringing and life in Mississippi.

“Recounting Mississippi’s history forces me to relive my experiences growing up in the Jim Crow era,” he wrote. “While I do not rely on those experiences in deciding this case, I would be less than candid if I did not admit that I recall them. Vividly.

“So I confess that I remember in 1963 a cross that was burned on my grandmother’s lawn two doors down from where I grew up,” he wrote.

Graves goes on to recount his experiences with school desegregation, and his disdain after being appointed to the judiciary of having to serve under the state that contained the battle emblem as part of its design.

Graves also highlights actions in 2020 by the Legislature to replace the flag. But after that historic achievement, he pointed out Mississippi to this day is the only state to recognize a Confederate Heritage Month, and while other states recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mississippi honors Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the same day.

“I recount these events, as a native Mississippian, only to highlight the importance of making the right decision in this case,” Graves wrote.

Read Judge Graves’ complete dissent below. His dissent begins on page 36.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Judge denies state auditor’s motion to dismiss defamation case by Ole Miss professor

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Judge denies state auditor’s motion to dismiss defamation case by Ole Miss professor

A Circuit Court judge has denied State Auditor Shad White’s motion to dismiss a defamation brought by University of Mississippi Professor James Thomas. 

In his January 2021 motion, White alleged he could not be sued for defamation for allegations he made that Thomas, by participating in a two-day event called a “Scholar Strike,” violated state law prohibiting public employees from striking. 

White argued that as a state executive officer, he is entitled to a legal doctrine known as “absolute immunity” – the complete protection from liability for actions committed in the course of his official duties – even though he acknowledged no Mississippi court has considered the issue. 

Judge E. Faye Peterson was not persuaded, writing that Mississippi law is clear state officers have “no absolute privilege for any and all comments,” only those made during legislative, judicial and military proceedings. 

“Hence, Shad White is not entitled to absolute immunity for any and all statements which he makes as a state governmental official,” Peterson wrote in a Sept. 2 order. “That blanket theory of immunity has not been recognized by our courts, nor does it comport with the laws of this state.” 

Peterson added that “to the continued detriment” of White’s defense, Mississippi courts have found that immunity does not extend “to fraud, malice, libel, slander, defamation or any criminal offense.” 

Peterson declined to issue a declaratory judgment just yet on whether or not Thomas’ participation in the Scholar Strike actually violated state law – a key argument in his case for defamation.

Fletcher Freeman, a spokesperson for the state auditor’s office, said White and his counsel from the Mississippi ’s office will “continue defense against this case.” 

“Auditor White absolutely has a right to tell people when they misspend money, which is what Thomas’ lawsuit is about,” Freeman wrote in an email. 

The lawsuit filed in December 2020 centers on White’s claims that Thomas participated in an “illegal” work stoppage on Sept. 8 and Sept. 9, 2020, and thus violated state law. White sent Thomas a letter demanding he repay $1,912 – his salary and interest – for the two days and another letter asking the University of Mississippi chancellor to consider termination. 

READ MORE: Auditor Shad White says a professor broke state law. The professor is now suing White for defamation.

Thomas’ initial complaint alleged this was defamation in part because it was false of White to claim that the Scholar Strike was illegal.

According to state code, a strike is an action taken “for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions, compensation, rights, privileges or obligations of public employment.” 

Thomas’ participation in the Scholar Strike was intended to highlight racism and injustice in the United States, not to change his working conditions, according to the initial complaint. 

“Shad White falsely claimed that Professor Thomas violated the law against public employee strikes when it was clear to anyone who could read that he didn’t,” said Rob McDuff, an attorney with the who is representing Thomas. 

White’s motion to dismiss argued that a declaratory judgment would be improper because “there are no ongoing legal relations between the parties to be clarified or settled.” Furthermore, it would “set a precedent inimical to the orderly and efficient disposition of Auditor demands.” 

“This will effectively create a need for expedited review (and potential defense) by the Attorney General of all Auditor demands referred for non-payment, regardless of whether the Attorney General may otherwise have ultimately elected not to pursue a given claim—an inefficient use of State resources,” the motion states. 

Thomas’ lawsuit does not ask for a set amount of monetary damages and says a jury should decide in the event White is found liable. 

“If the jury says he should pay one dollar, that is fine,” the complaint says. “If the jury orders payment of more money, that is fine too.” 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Court: Mississippi can continue blocking felons from voting

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www.wxxv25.com – Associated Press – 2022-08-25 09:35:03

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — People convicted of certain felonies in Mississippi still won’t be able to vote, as a that sought to automatically reinstate their rights was struck down by a federal appeals court Wednesday.

Attorneys who challenged the provision had argued the authors of the state’s 1890 constitution showed racist intent when they chose which felonies would cause people to lose the right to vote, picking crimes they thought were more likely to be committed by Black people.

The brought the…

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5th Circuit upholds Jim Crow-era law to keep Black Mississippians from voting

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5th Circuit upholds Jim Crow-era law written to keep Black Mississippians from voting

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic language.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court ruling allowing a provision of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution designed to keep African Americans from to remain in place.

The provision places a lifetime ban on voting in most instances on people convicted of certain felonies — crimes that the framers of the 1890 state Constitution said Black Mississippians were more prone to commit.

The framers did not disenfranchise people convicted of murder or rape, for instance, but did strip voting rights of people convicted of several “lesser crimes,” which the writers of the Constitution falsely believed would be committed by African Americans.

The “per curiam” or unsigned opinion of the 5th Circuit said because of actions taken by the Legislature in the 1950s and 1960s allowing voters a chance to amend the constitutional provision, among other things adding murder and rape as disenfranchising crimes, the provision no longer has a racist taint.

“Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that Section 241 as it currently stands was motivated by discriminatory intent or that any other approach to demonstrating the provision’s unconstitutionality is viable,” the majority said.

The majority opinion also cited the Legislature taking up the issue in the 1980s and opting not to change it.

The provision was defended on behalf of the state by the office of Attorney General Lynn Fitch.

The among other groups brought the on behalf of two Black Mississippians who had lost the right to vote: Roy Harness and Kamal Karriem, convicted of forgery and embezzlement, respectively.

“This provision was a part of the 1890 plan to take the vote away from Black people who had attained it in the wake of the ,” said Rob McDuff, director of the Impact Litigation Project at the Mississippi Center for Justice. “Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals is allowing it to remain in place despite its racist origins. Despite this setback, we will continue this battle and seek review in the .”

The case was considered by 17 members of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, considered one of the most conservative judiciaries in the nation. Oral arguments were held in the case in September 2021 in New Orleans.

In a statement, Fitch’s office said, “We are pleased with the court’s decision.  As the court noted, ‘Plaintiffs’ proposal that a state constitutional amendment must be voted on word for word to avoid any vestigial racial taint is radically prescriptive…. No subsequent case law supports plaintiffs’ novel, judicially crafted political theory of public consent.'”

”Seven of the 17 members dissented with the majority opinion. Circuit Judge James Graves Jr., previously a member of the , wrote a lengthy dissent detailing the state’s sordid racist past, including events from the 1960s when the Legislature allowed the electorate to vote on the constitutional provision. That vote allowed murder and rape to be added as disenfranchising crimes, but did not give the electorate the opportunity to vote on whether other changes needed to be made to the provision or whether the entire Jim Crow provision should be stricken from the Constitution.

As part of Graves’ history of the state’s racial past, he cited progress that led to the election of Black officials — including him as a judge — and led to the replacement of the old Mississippi state that contained the battle emblem as part of its design.

Citing that the state had not been allowed to vote on the provision, Graves wrote: “Mississippians have simply not been given the chance to right the wrongs of its racist origins. And this court … deprives Mississippians of this opportunity by upholding an unconstitutional law enacted for the purpose of discriminating against Black Mississippians on the basis of race.”

In his opening, Graves quoted segregationist former Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman.

“There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter … Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics … In Mississippi we have in our Constitution legislated against the racial peculiarities of the Negro … When that device fails, we will resort to something else.”

In Mississippi, people with felony convictions must petition the Legislature to get a bill passed by a two-thirds majority of both chambers to regain voting rights. Normally only a handful (less than five) of such bills are successful each session. There is also the option of the governor granting a pardon to restore voting rights, but no governor has granted pardons since Haley Barbour in 2012.

For a subset of those who lose their rights, the courts can expunge their record. In some instances that expungement includes the restoration of voting rights, while for others it does not. That outcome depends on the preference of the judge granting the expungement.

Those crimes placed in the Constitution where conviction costs a person the right to vote are bribery, , arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, bigamy and burglary.

Under the original language of the Constitution, a person could be convicted of cattle rustling and lose the right to vote, but those convicted of murder or rape would still be able to vote — even while incarcerated.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Should Mississippi, like Kansas, vote on abortion?

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Should Mississippi, like Kansas, vote on abortion? Would the outcome differ?

In Mississippi, like Kansas, the Supreme Court has said the state Constitution provides a right to an .

The Kansas Supreme Court made its ruling in 2019. The Mississippi ruling came in 1998.

In an effort to supersede the Kansas Supreme Court ruling, the Legislature placed on the ballot a proposal to proclaim that the state Constitution does not include abortion rights.

That proposal was defeated Tuesday by Kansas voters by a 59% to 41% margin, meaning abortion remains legal in the state viewed as one of the most conservative in the nation.

Mississippi’s Supreme Court ruling said, “While we do not interpret our Constitution as recognizing an explicit right to an abortion, we believe that autonomous bodily integrity is protected under the right to privacy … Protected within the right of autonomous bodily integrity is an implicit right to have an abortion.”

There are two ways to reverse that 1998 Supreme Court ruling. The high court in a new case could overturn it. But since there is no abortion case pending before the Supreme Court, it is difficult to ascertain how such a reversal could occur. Another option would be to attempt what Kansas tried to do and amend the Constitution to state explicitly there is no right to an abortion. Like in Kansas, the proposal to amend the Constitution also would require voter approval.

The question then is whether the outcome in Mississippi would be different than in Kansas. Most observers were surprised that the anti-abortion proposal in Kansas was defeated. attorney Rob McDuff, who has defended abortion rights, said he is not so sure the outcome here would be different than in Kansas.

“Mississippi is a conservative state in many ways, but a lot of people here believe in the rights of the individual and believe government should not dictate a person’s beliefs,” McDuff said. “For centuries, people have debated and disagreed about the fundamental question of when life begins.”

McDuff continued: “When a woman is faced with the possibility of carrying a pregnancy inside her own body and bearing a child against her will, I think most Mississippians believe this is a decision for her to make in light of her own beliefs, and perhaps in consultation with her family and her doctor and her pastor, and not a decision for the majority of the state Legislature. That is what Mississippians said the last time they were asked this question in 2011, when, by a wide margin, they voted no on an amendment that would have banned abortion for purposes of our state Constitution. I expect the answer would be the same today. Recent polling in Mississippi bears that out.”

A recent poll commissioned by the ACLU of Mississippi found 51% opposed the overturning of that provided a national right to an abortion.

In 2012, after Mississippi voters rejected the so-called “personhood” amendment that stated life begins at conception, Speaker Philip Gunn authored a resolution saying abortion was not a constitutional right. That resolution died in the House Constitution Committee. Had it been passed by a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers and been approved by voters, it would have overturned the 1998 Supreme Court ruling saying the Mississippi Constitution granted the right to an abortion.

Gunn, who was in his first year as speaker in 2012, said recently he did not remember details about the proposal. When asked if the House might take up a similar proposal in the 2023 session, he said, “We are looking at a lot of things.”

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, ignoring the Supreme Court ruling, recently said, “I don’t think we need a constitutional amendment in Mississippi because we have a state statute which speaks to that. The only abortion clinic that operated in our state is now closed, I don’t know that it has to be in the Constitution.”

It’s true that laws banning most abortions in the state went into effect when the overturned the national constitutional right to an abortion in a landmark case from Mississippi. The practical effect of those laws is that abortions are not being performed in Mississippi.

But that 1998 decision hangs out there. At some point, there could be a conflict in the Mississippi judicial system between that constitutional right to an abortion as cited by the and the normally lesser-in-the-eyes of the judiciary laws or statutes.

At the very least, by ignoring that Supreme Court ruling, a precedent is being established in the state that the Mississippi Supreme Court can be — well, ignored.

A simple way to resolve the conflict between state law and the Mississippi Constitution is to let the people vote like they did in Kansas.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable: Project to highlight health care barriers

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Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable launches project to highlight barriers to health care

The Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable is seeking to elevate the experiences of Black women and girls who face barriers to accessing through its Mississippi Voices project.

The group is offering Mississippi women $200 to share their health care stories with them as part of the ongoing project.

Cassandra Welchlin, executive director of the Roundtable, said centering the lived experiences of women in Mississippi is essential to effectively advocating for health care policy changes, primarily expansion. Mississippi is one of 12 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. If state leaders were to expand Medicaid, at least 225,000 Mississippians would qualify for health care coverage. Many of those who would qualify currently exist in the “health care coverage gap” where they cannot afford private insurance but make too much to qualify for Medicaid.

The project is a partnership with the and the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program and is funded by Community Catalyst, a nonprofit national health advocacy organization.

Welchlin said that her organization is primarily focused on the economic security of women in the state, and that health care advocacy is inseparable from that mission. 

“We know that it (access to quality health care) serves as an equalizing force, particularly in communities of color … Health care can break you or can make you,” Welchlin said. 

The project started in 2020 with eight focus groups held across the state where women across generational and economic lines shared their experiences of the state’s health care system. They heard horror stories of women putting off needed exams and surgeries because they couldn’t afford their insurer’s copay. Some women were not taking needed medications every day in order to make their supplies last longer.

Welchlin said a goal of the project is equipping the women with the knowledge and communication skills they need to organize in their own communities and hold their elected officials accountable. 

“It’s important that they get to control that narrative, because they know what they’ve been through and what they need,” Welchlin said. 

Welchlin said that a common thread that emerged throughout the project is that difficulty accessing health care exists for women across the board, regardless of their level of education and employment. 

Regina Lewis is a 45-year-old Jackson native who, despite having a master’s degree, struggles to pay her medical bills.

Lewis works for a small nonprofit organization that doesn’t provide health insurance. This forced her to get insured through Mississippi’s Affordable Care Act marketplace, which features only a few providers.

Lewis says her insurance plan is lackluster and doesn’t include many in-network providers in her area. She has been seeing the same OB-GYN for 15 years, but has to pay out of pocket to see him because he’s not in her provider network. That kind of doctor-patient relationship was just too valuable for her to give up. 

“It shouldn’t have to be that way,” Lewis said. “We should have a choice to receive quality care where we’re comfortable.” 

Lewis also suffers from high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and gastroparesis. Some of her medications don’t have generic equivalents, the only medication types her insurance covers, so she has to pay $250 each month to manage these chronic conditions. 

Welchlin said another major problem is that women aren’t believed when they tell health care providers what their needs are and that they aren’t invited into the decision making process with their doctors.

Lewis experienced this when she was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a disease that partially paralyzes the stomach and prevents the organ from emptying itself normally.

Only two treatment options were presented to Lewis, she said. One was a medication that had serious side effects, and the other was having a gastric pacemaker installed that would stimulate her stomach muscles with electricity, but that came with a high risk of repeated infections. 

Lewis declined both options. To her, the added risks outweigh the benefits. Those were the only treatment options presented to her, so she manages the condition herself by severely limiting her diet. She feels like if she wasn’t a Black woman or had better insurance, she would have received better, more compassionate care. 

“It’s like some doctors and people look down upon you because you have this type of health insurance instead of a true commercial insurance,” Lewis said. 

To share your health care story for Mississippi Voices, text “MSVOICES” to (833) 621-1953.

Editor’s note: Black Women’s Roundtable has placed paid advertisements on Mississippi Today’s website. Mississippi Today maintains a clear separation between and advertising content. As such, advertisers have no influence or control over Mississippi Today’s editorial decisions.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

JPD roadblock lawsuit: Plaintiffs, city in settlement negotiations

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JPD roadblock lawsuit: Plaintiffs, city in settlement negotiations

Months after a was filed in federal court alleging the Jackson Department’s roadblock program violates drivers’ constitutional rights and disproportionately affects people from Black and low-income neighborhoods, attorneys from the and the City of Jackson are working toward a resolution. 

Settlement negotiations have been active since early March, shortly after the center filed the class action lawsuit, said Mississippi Center for Justice attorney Paloma Wu, who is also deputy director of the George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative. 

The suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi against the City of Jackson and Police Chief James Davis, has not gone before a judge yet. 

The four plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Black, white and mixed race. Although they are not in the room during the discussions, they are offering potential ways to mitigate harm from the checkpoints, Wu said. 

Jackson police calls the roadblock program “Ticket Arrest Tow.” Since the beginning of the year, they have been used around the city to check if drivers have valid licenses, insurance and registration. 

Police officials have said the roadblocks also allow officers to see if a driver has an active warrant.

“Our intent is to get wanted individuals off the streets,” court records document Davis saying to reporters on Feb. 18.  “We are doing everything we can to keep Jackson safe. We’ve got individuals with outstanding warrants that is wanted (sic) and we’re looking to bring them to justice.”

Plaintiffs say the checkpoints disproportionately harm people who can’t afford or are unable to stay on top of keeping driver’s licenses, registration and car insurance updated. 

Members from the Mississippi Alliance for Public Safety reached out to MCJ about peoples’ experiences with the roadblocks and how members wanted to organize around the issue. 

Wu said the center began looking into the roadblocks and moved quickly to file a lawsuit because harm was building. 

“Every time the roadblocks went up, it was like a casualty zone,” she said. 

Between Jan. 4 to March 18, Jackson police officers made a total of 208 arrests – 10 for felonies, 198 for misdemeanors – from its roadblocks, according to information from the department obtained through a public records request shared with the Mississippi Center for Justice. 

During that period, Jackson police officers also issued 1,149 citations and towed 186 vehicles. 

Members of the alliance spoke with over 80 people in South and West Jackson, where they said they’d heard most of the roadblocks were occurring, and found many had negative experiences.

People said they felt inconvenienced and unable to move in and out of their communities. Alliance members heard a story about a mother who walked home with her children in the rain because her car was towed after going through a checkpoint. 

Archie Skiffer, Jr., 43 of Mendenhall, Friday, July 8, 2022.

Archie Skiffer Jr., 43, is a member of the Mississippi Alliance for Public Safety and has been a community organizer for over 20 years. He is also one of the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit. 

He commutes from Simpson County to work in Jackson, and at night delivers food for DoorDash in the city. Skiffer uses driving apps to find alternate routes to avoid the roadblocks and get food orders to customers in a timely manner. 

The money Skiffer earns from his two jobs help him afford his home and other living expenses. 

“It would be devastating,” he said about potential loss of food delivery income or employment if he were to lose his car. 

While delivering food, Skiffer said he has met Jackson residents who rely on food delivery because they do not have the credentials to drive to get food themselves. He said they fear getting caught up in a roadblock and potentially cited or arrested. 

Like Skiffer and other alliance members, the Poor People’s Campaign also believes Jackson police’s roadblocks criminalize poor people.

The Poor People’s Campaign is working with the city and has set up tents near the checkpoints to provide information to people who may not have a license or other documentation, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said during a March 21 press conference. 

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. A traffic stop by police would need to be supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause, Wu said. 

The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 roadblocks can’t be used for general control, but law enforcement can use them to check for licenses, car insurance and registration, she said. 

General roadblocks treat people like they are guilty when that isn’t always the case, Wu said. 

In a July 1 court filing, the city denied most of the allegations in the complaint, including that the roadblocks are unconstitutional, they target majority Black and low-income neighborhoods and people are treated as suspects as they drive through them. 

“Any injury, damage or deprivation alleged or suffered by the plaintiff was the result of the plaintiff’s failure to act reasonably or avoid or mitigate such injury, damage or deprivation,” the city said in its response. 

In addition, the city says it is immune from the lawsuit under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act and through qualified immunity, which states a government employee can’t be sued if they were acting within the bounds of their job, according to the court documents. 

City Attorney Catoria Martin, whose office is involved in settlement negotiations with the Mississippi Center for Justice, said in an email the city does not comment on pending litigation. Jackson Police Department Public Information Officer Sam Brown did not respond to a request for comment. 

Looking ahead, Skiffer and members of the Mississippi Alliance for Public Safety would like to see the roadblocks used in a more equitable way. That could mean where they are placed rotates among precincts over a certain period of time, and the roadblocks could also be placed in predominantly white neighborhoods such as Belhaven or Eastover, he said. 

Skiffer said Jackson police could share information and resources with people who need to renew a driver’s license or let people contact a family member to give their vehicle to instead of having it towed. 

Police can also use discretion not to cite or arrest someone, he said, adding that a warning could work in some situations. 

“Have compassion,” Skiffer said. 

Editor’s note: The Mississippi Center For Justice President and CEO Vangela M. Wade serves on Mississippi Today’s board of trustees.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Abortion clinic drops its lawsuit, leaving legality of abortion in Mississippi in limbo

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Abortion clinic drops its lawsuit, leaving legality of abortion in Mississippi in limbo

Attorneys for announced Tuesday it was dropping its legal efforts to continue to perform abortions in Mississippi.

Rob McDuff, an attorney for the who represented the clinic, said the failure of the state Supreme Court to hear the case “on an emergency basis” led to the decision for Jackson Women’s Health Organization to drop the and to relocate to another state where abortions are not banned.

The clinic was the last provider in the state.

The clinic had filed an emergency petition with the state Supreme Court asking the justices to prevent from going into effect state laws banning most abortions in Mississippi. The clinic pointed out that in 1998, the state Supreme Court had ruled that abortion was a right protected by the Mississippi Constitution. That ruling, the clinic argued, would supersede the state laws passed in later years to ban abortions.

READ MORE: Mississippi, where abortion is technically both legal and illegal at the same time

But in a statement Tuesday, the Mississippi Center of Justice said that because of the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the abortion clinic appeals in an expedited matter, the lawsuit was being dropped. Diane Derzis, the owner of the clinic, recently sold the building in Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood where the clinic, known as the Pink House, was located. She is continuing with plans to open a clinic in New Mexico.

“In recent years, the Mississippi Center for Justice, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the Paul Weiss law firm have filed several lawsuits to keep the clinic’s doors open, and to preserve and expand access to abortion in Mississippi,” said Vangela Wade, chief executive officer for the Mississippi Center for Justice. “We will continue to work for the day that right is restored and that every Mississippian has the resources to make their own reproductive and family planning decisions.”

With the decision to drop the lawsuit, left unresolved is the 1998 state Supreme Court decision in that recognized the right to abortion as part of the Mississippi Constitution. After that decision was issued, the state Legislature in 2007 passed a law saying most abortions would be banned in Mississippi if the ever stripped away the right to an abortion as part of the federal Constitution. And in 2019 the state Legislature passed a ban on all abortions after six weeks except in cases of medical emergencies.

State officials said those laws took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court in late June overturned Roe v. Wade, which granted the right to an abortion, in a case involving Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

But Jackson Women’s Health Organization filed a lawsuit to block those laws from taking effect based on the 1998 state Supreme Court ruling. The lawsuit argued that the Supreme Court ruling, which was based on the Constitution, trumped state law. But Chancellor Debbra Halford of Franklin County rejected the clinic’s arguments. The clinic appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, but on Tuesday decided to drop the appeal.

While that appeal was pending before the Supreme Court, doctors at the clinic stopped performing abortions opting not to risk the punishment doled out in state law – a possible prison sentence and a loss of medical license – even though in the lawsuit they argued they still had the right to perform abortions based on the 1998 state Supreme Court ruling.

Mississippi Today could not get a definitive answer from the Supreme Court on whether it could take up the lawsuit even though it was dropped and reconsider the 1998 ruling granting a constitutional right to an abortion.

Theoretically, a doctor could perform abortions in the state and argue in court he or she had the right based on the 1998 Supreme Court ruling. But the doctor would be risking his or her livelihood based on how the court ruled on the issue of the Constitution versus state law.

In a statement, McDuff said, “Diane’s work is not done, and we applaud her commitment to continuing to ensure people can exercise their right to abortion. As she has stated, she is working to open a clinic in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she can provide abortion care without fear of being put in prison for 10 years. We thank Diane; the clinic’s executive director, Shannon Brewer; and its medical director, Dr. Carr-Ellis; all of the clinic’s employees; and the Pink House Defenders, for the heroic work they have done so Mississippians could make their own decisions about pregnancy and childbirth.”

Editor’s note: Vangela M. Wade is a member of Mississippi Today’s board of directors.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Judge refuses to stop abortion ban from going into effect Thursday

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Judge refuses to stop abortion ban from going into effect Thursday

Chancery Judge Debbra Halford refused to block Mississippi’s ban from going into effect on Thursday despite a 1998 ruling from the Supreme Court saying the state Constitution grants abortion rights.

Just hours after a 45-minute Tuesday morning hearing, Halford issued the eight-page decision ruling on Tuesday afternoon refusing to side with the state’s only abortion provider, , which had requested a temporary restraining order to prevent laws from going into effect banning most abortions in Mississippi.

Abortion rights groups had argued that laws banning abortions in the state could not go into effect until a 1998 state Supreme Court decision, , was overturned. The 1998 decision, the abortion rights supporters argued, could only be overturned by the .

But in ruling against the abortion rights groups, Halford said that it is likely that the current state Supreme Court will uphold the Mississippi laws banning most abortions now that the has ruled that abortion is not a protected right under the federal Constitution.

Halford wrote that since a right to an abortion as granted by the U.S. Constitution “is no longer the law of the land, reliance upon Fordice almost certainly will not be well-founded when pursuing this case in the (state) Supreme Court.”

“We are going to review the decision and consider our options,” said Jackson attorney Rob McDuff of the . McDuff and Hillary Schneller, senior staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, represented Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Tuesday’s hearing in the Chancery Court building.

They argued that Halford should halt the abortions ban from taking effect because the 1998 ruling by the state Supreme Court was the law of the land in Mississippi. It would take a new ruling from the state Supreme to reverse the 1998 ruling.

“The primary issue before you is whether the decision of the Mississippi Supreme Court is binding and we clearly believe it is,” McDuff said during the hearing.

Halford ultimately agreed with the arguments of Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, who argued on behalf of Lynn Fitch. He told Halford that the 1998 state Supreme Court ruling was no longer binding law because of the recent landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the decision and the Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision that enshrined in the U.S. Constitution the right to an abortion.

“They depend on Roe and Casey. There is no Roe and Casey anymore. And there is no Fordice,” Stewart said, referring to the 1998 state Supreme Court ruling titled Pro-Choice Mississippi v. Kirk Fordice.

READ MORE: Supreme Court could assure abortion ban in Mississippi, or people could vote

Stewart had also argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that resulted in the reversal of Roe and Casey.

What happens next depends on whether Halford’s ruling is appealed to the state Supreme Court.

As the issue is litigated, though, the clock is ticking on abortion rights in Mississippi. A trigger law is slated to take effect on Thursday banning all abortions in the state except in cases where it is determined the life of the mother is at risk or in cases where there is rape reported to law enforcement.

Another Mississippi law that would take effect based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling would ban all abortion after six weeks except in cases of medical emergencies.

About 50 spectators heard the Tuesday morning arguments, and a small group protected outside of the Hinds County Chancery Court building.

Stewart did not try to argue that the 1998 ruling did not say abortion was a right under the state Constitution. Instead, he argued that the majority in 1998 ruled that abortion was a right under the state Constitution to be in alignment with the federal Supreme Court in the Roe v. Wade decision.

But McDuff said nowhere in the ruling was any reference made to the state Supreme Court decision being contingent on the Roe v. Wade decision. He said in other rulings, the state Supreme Court had ruled that the rights granted in the Mississippi Constitution did not “inflate or deflate like a balloon” based on the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. But on Tuesday, Halford disagreed with McDuff.

McDuff pointed out to the court that abortion had been legal for a vast majority of Mississippi’s statehood and that the judge should block the enactment of the laws banning abortion to give the Mississippi Supreme Court time to rule on the issue.

Stewart argued that it would not be a hardship to allow the laws to go into effect. He said programs had been put in place, such as pregnancy counseling programs, to help mothers who might otherwise had wanted to have an abortion.

Halford heard the case because all four Hinds County chancery judges recused themselves.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Delta: Labor Secretary office will combat racist hiring practices

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U.S. Labor Secretary assures Black Delta workers his office will combat racist hiring practices used by white farmers

INDIANOLA — U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told Black farm workers that his office would combat the racist wage and hiring practices by white farm owners during his first visit to the Mississippi Delta Thursday.

The Department of Labor head’s pledge to local workers comes after a Mississippi Today investigation uncovered a pattern of farm owners skirting federal regulations to underpay Black workers in addition to pushing them out of jobs in favor of foreign workers – mainly, white men from South Africa. 

“I can’t promise you today that things are going to change overnight,” Walsh told local farm workers. “But l can promise you that it will not be 10 years from now, it will not be five years from now… it will not be one year from now. When I get back to my office in D.C. … we are working on this.” 

Walsh met with seven men named in a against Indianola’s Pitts Farms at the office in Indianola. Also in attendance was U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson. 

“What I heard today in this meeting was discrimination. What I heard today in this meeting was racism,” Walsh said. “I don’t know where the senators of the state are. I don’t know where the governor of the state (is), and I certainly don’t know where the congressional delegation in the state is because you have workers in this state that are being taken advantage of and discriminated against.”

The Mississippi Center for Justice, which offers free legal services, has filed two lawsuits that accuse farm owners of not only paying Black workers less than their white counterparts, but also pushing them out of their jobs. 

One of the attorneys, Sharkey County native Ty Pinkins, shared new details regarding alleged discrimination on Delta farms that had not previously been shared publicly. The examples mirrored the experiences many of the workers lived through during Jim Crow.

Pinkins said workers reported that while white South Africans were able to use indoor bathrooms, Black local workers were forced to relieve themselves outdoors. Pinkins shared another incident in which he said white South African workers were provided cold water while Black workers were told they needed to buy their own. 

Mississippi Today’s investigation – “Exploited” – found at least five Delta farms that paid their local workers, who are mostly Black, less money per hour than foreign workers who came to work in Mississippi on agriculture visas through the H-2A program.

Walsh said his office is examining the program so it can no longer be misused by farms – especially by farms in regions, like the Delta, with high rates of unemployment. The H-2A program is intended to fill gaps in the workforce where enough local workers are not available. 

U.S.Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, speaks to Black farmers, community leaders and politicians regarding the exploitation of Black farmers in the Delta, during a meeting at the Mississippi Center for Justice in Indianola, Thursday, June 30, 2022.

“We’re going to make sure this program is run the way it’s supposed to run and that employers are actually doing their due diligence to make sure workers that worked (for farms) in previous seasons are offered their jobs back,” Walsh told Mississippi Today. 

The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division is responsible for investigating labor violations regarding pay and has regional offices across the country. In 2020 and 2021, Walsh said the division had 60 agricultural investigations that recovered $1 million in missing wages to workers. 

A Mississippi Today analysis of DOL data found that of the roughly 400 Mississippi farms  investigated over 15 years, 81% were found to have violated wage regulations. That is about 10% higher than the national rate. 

“I’m no fool,” Walsh added. “I know that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Audrey Hall, the director of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division in Jackson, said her agents are currently investigating several Delta farms though she declined to specify a number. She also said her office hired a new agent based in Greenwood. 

“At a state level we don’t have a Mississippi Department of Labor,” Thompson, the congressman, told the gathered crowd of Delta leaders. “That means if not for the federal government, these gentlemen we have here today would not have anyone to complain to.” 

Thompson thanked Walsh for coming to Mississippi, but also asked for follow through on labor policies to protect Black farm workers. 

Mississippi Today’s investigation found that while the DOL did audit Pitts Farms and others that underpaid Black workers, the audits only spanned two-year time frames. That means they did not cover the full span of time the farms were using H-2A workers. 

Pinkins and others have called for that standard two-year scope to be expanded. In addition, Pinkins and the Mississippi Center for Justice want broader audits done across the Delta to fully capture the extent of racist wage and hiring practices. 

Among the seven Pitts Farms workers at Thursday’s event were Andrew Johnson, brothers Richard and Gregory Strong, and Wesley Reed, all of whom were featured in Mississippi Today’s investigation. All seven men spoke one-on-one with Walsh Thursday morning. 

“It’s June 30, 2022, and this conversation I had in that room a minute ago could have been the same conversation that had happened 50 years ago,” Walsh said following their talk. 

Walsh continued his Mississippi visit by attending a roundtable discussion at Jackson State University. There, he met with Black women leading the state’s union and organizing efforts. 

Hall, the local DOL director, made a few comments before Walsh joined the panel. 

“Sec. Walsh has heard the cry of workers in Mississippi,” she said. 

The room applauded. 

Editor’s note: The Mississippi Center For Justice President and CEO Vangela Wade serves on Mississippi Today’s board of trustees.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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